What stood as a potentially furious offseason for the Tigers ignited Thursday when they shipped starting center-fielder Cameron Maybin to the Angels in a swap for high-heat, right-handed pitching prospect Victor Alcantara.
Maybin, a first-round pick in 2005 who became part of the trade ransom for Miguel Cabrera, had a second stint with the Tigers in 2016 and was one of the pluses during a so-so season at Comerica Park.
Maybin batted .315 in 94 games and had speed that made him shine in a Tigers lineup carrying its share of plodders. He batted far beyond his career average of .259 and, while light on power, Maybin, who turned 29 last April, brought to the Tigers vigor that pleased fans and made him an apparent starter heading into 2017.
But the Tigers were also carrying a $9-million option on Maybin for 2017 and had viewed him as a definite, and perhaps necessary, trade chip. The team is trying mightily to lighten its $200-million-plus payroll and, at the same time, stock its roster with younger talent.
“We’re just trying to be more efficient,” Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, said Thursday evening. “And we’re not averse to adding a young power arm with upside.”
Maybin’s exit helps finances that in 2016 saw the Tigers pay a luxury tax of more than $2 million when they overstepped the $189-million threshold.
But his exit means the Tigers are on safari for help at a vital up-the-middle position.
The Tigers could find a replacement during the coming shopping season, during which the Tigers are expected to be heavy dealers. They otherwise are looking at in-house replacements that begin with JaCoby Jones, 24, a right-handed batter with splendid range and a bat that’s being developed.
Jones is playing this autumn in the Arizona Fall League and has pleased his bosses, batting .313 in 18 games, with an .819 OPS and a .389 on-base percentage — key for a player trying to refine his strike zone.
The Tigers also have as an option Tyler Collins, a left-handed hitter who can play center field, and who has power in greater supply than defensive range. But the Tigers feel reasonably comfortable with Collins among their choices.
They also, officially, retain former starter Anthony Gose as a potential part-timer. But after a season in which Gose played his way out of the lineup in Detroit and had issues in the minors the Tigers have made clear Gose is probably headed elsewhere.
The Tigers are expected to hunt for help in center during the coming weeks and might find a center fielder as part of trade packages yet to be discussed. But they are more likely to chase humbler help in center as they allow Jones, should he have a big spring training, to win the job or become part of their center-field solution in the near future.
Center field’s fate in 2017 is no greater mystery than what the Tigers got in Alcantara, who might have been as good as the Tigers were to receive when the market for Maybin and his contract was likely thin.
Alcantara, 23, is from a familiar classification of pitchers: big arm, with control issues. He has walked 250 batters in 503 innings during five years in the Angels system. He has struck out 446, and has allowed only 35 home runs.
Although he had been a starter in his time on the Angels farm, he was moved late in 2016 to the bullpen in a bid to boost his command. In nine games, he held batters to a .159 batting average, compared with .266 as a starter. But he still walked a batter per inning, numbers the Tigers were aware of when Thursday’s deal was made.
The Tigers likewise believe Alcantara’s best chance is as a reliever. He throws a mid-90-mph fastball that can climb to the high 90s, as well as a strong slider and a lukewarm change-up.
The Angels were spurred to move for Maybin as a troubled American League West team works to upgrade its personnel, in any manner, ahead of 2017. Maybin’s contract option is of little issue to the Angels, a team of comfortable means that will view his tool kit as helpful.
The Tigers, however, faced a different mission Thursday. They need to lose payroll weight. Even had they decided against picking up Maybin’s option, the Tigers would have been obliged to offer a $1 million buyout.
Rather than write a check either way, the Tigers — who are all but praying for a pleasant surprise in center field in 2017 — decided to take what they could get for a player who simply had become unaffordable.
It is all but certain more Tigers trades are in the offing. How big, and how many, remains to be seen.